(This post is a part of a series on redefining success in ministry.)
One day last week, a man from our neighborhood came into the coffee shop to hang out and chat with me. For several hours. Honestly, when I saw him coming, I groaned inwardly. He's socially awkward (it's actually related to a disability), he slurs his speech (also disability related), I struggle to feign interest in the things he wants to tell me about, he doesn't really seem to want to hear, only to talk. On top of all of that, he's a registered sex offender. He's truly difficult to like.
But none of that matters. Because I'm called to love him. As he is. No matter how difficult. So I listened. I shared with him. I accepted him, broken and offensive as he might be. I act this way partly from obedience, and partly because I've been on the other end of judgment and conditional acceptance. I know how painful that is. I hope he never realizes my inner response to him. And I pray that God will make love my first response, rather than just my intentional one.
One of the bedrock tenets of my faith is the idea that God created us for relationship.
But there's nothing more frightening.
Let's be honest... personal, intimate relationship is risky.
As I recently told a parishioner, "Love always leads to pain."
From early childhood, we learn that if we act in certain ways, people respond more positively to us. We all want approval. We all want relationship. So we change (at least we try) our behavior to be more socially palatable... or we hide those behaviors that aren't.
In the church world, that behavior is accentuated... sometimes to extreme levels. We all show up to church meetings with our good clothes and pretend. I remember a few years ago, a couple showed up to a church service and we watched as they had a screaming fight in the car before they came in, late for service. When asked how they were doing, they both said things were great. Neither was willing to acknowledge what had just happened in the parking lot.
The author of the book I'm reading today had this to say...
"I've always been more drawn to the company of sinners than to saints. I just enjoy the realness of it all. And a common thread that I've always found in the Christian faith, amongst believers, is that they like to play 'make-believe' a lot... Christians rarely tell you what they are really thinking and feeling, because they were raised to be a 'good boy' or 'good girl'... prim, proper, and polite. And often when i interact with these type of Christian folk, everything in me wants to say 'Bullcrap. Tell me what you're really thinking.' I can't fault these people too much, as a lot of them are just really trying to be obedient in their faith, but somewhere along the way they were taught that obedience coincides with wearing a religious mask, and they were taught it's not okay to be transparent when you're in a crappy mood, or that you're addicted to sin. And so you hid, and you pretend, and you, as they say 'fake it till you make it.'" --David Leo Schultz
The sad part is that people outside the church community... you know, those people we claim to want to reach... see it so much more clearly than we do. They react in of two ways.
First, they call us phonies (they're right, you know) and reject our faith.
Second, if they feel drawn by God, they say "I need to get to church... once I get my life together."
Because NOBODY wants to be rejected. And they know... absolutely... in the depths of their soul... that they are not lovable. They know that their behaviors are not acceptable in our culture.
That's why I've made it a point to tell people in our little church that we have to be ok with being uncomfortable. Whether somebody wanders in drunk, interrupts the teaching with their angry outbursts or shares more about their sinful struggles than we want to know, we need to accept them as they are. It's the first step to convincing them that a holy God could actually love them.
That's why I think that our definition of a successful church culture is one where everyone feels welcomed and accepted.